The Birth of Commercial Aviation - Part Two The Air Mail Service Pilots - April 10, 2009

The Birth of Commercial Aviation – Part One The Barnstormers – April 03, 2009
April 3, 2009
The Birth of Commercial Aviation – Part Three The Air Mail Service Pilots Pay Scale – April 17, 2009
April 17, 2009
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The Birth of Commercial Aviation – Part Two The Air Mail Service Pilots – April 10, 2009

Have we, as aviators, forgotten our roots and the struggles of those who preceded us? I hope not and I hope that all of us look back at our history and understand our past. There are a number of resources available that will allow you, as an aviator, to connect with your roots and the “Third Dimension Blog” is one of those resources. I invite you to join me now as we talk about the beginnings of our profession.

Quote of the Week

Man must rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond—for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.—Socrates

The Air Mail Service Pilots

Last week we talked about the art form of barnstorming and how it served as the beginning of commercial aviation. Now we will look at an event that developed simultaneously with the barnstorming era— Air Mail Service Pilots.

In 1917, the U.S. Government decided that it had seen enough progress with the development of airplanes for it to appropriate the money to begin air mail service. This service was initially provided by the U.S. Army Air Corp for the Post Office Department, but in 1918, the Post Office Department took over the operation providing equipment and pilots.

Between 1918 and 1925 there were over two hundred pilots who flew as Air Mail Service Pilots. Many of these pilots were from the barnstorming industry and many left the service to go back to barnstorming. Out of those two hundred pilots forty-four lost their lives and many more suffered severe injuries from crashes. Life as an Air Mail Service Pilot was almost as dangerous as barnstorming.

Congress passed the Kelly Act in 1925. This act authorized the Postmaster General to contract for domestic airmail service with commercial carriers. By transferring airmail operations to private companies the government would now take commercial aviation to the next level—this is the beginnings of the airline industry.

Winners of the initial five contracts were National Air Transport, Varney Air Lines, Western Air Express, Colonial Air Transport, and Robertson Aircraft Corporation. National and Varney would later become important parts of United Airlines which was originally a joint venture of the Boeing Airplane Company and Pratt & Whitney. Western would merge with Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) to form Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA). Robertson would become part of the Universal Aviation Corporation which in turn would merge with Colonial, Southern Air Transport and others to form American Airways, predecessor of American Airlines. Juan Trippe, one of the original partners in Colonial, would later pioneer international air travel with Pan Am — a carrier he founded in 1927 to transport mail between Key West, FL, and Havana, Cuba.

The air mail business continued to grow and more new companies began to be a part of the business. However, one of the more interesting facts about this transition to private companies is that the newly-formed companies had to follow the Post Office formula for pilot’s pay. The companies had been informed that the pilots were to be considered “quasi-governmental” employees and any airline wishing to change the formula to cut pilot’s wages would run the risk of losing its government contract. I find it extremely interesting that the US Government/US Post Office turns out to be the first union to represent pilots on a wage and benefit package.

Next week we continue with our look at the beginning of Commercial Aviation, and the pay scale of the Air Mail Service Pilots. Until then, take some time to look back, connect with your past and remember as an aviator you are a “Gatekeeper of the Third Dimension.”

Protect your profession, your future and the future of your fellow aviators.


Robert Novell

April 10, 2009